The Shanghai World Expo is nothing if not forward-looking. In China’s continuing zeal to put forth its best face to the world, it has spared little expense in making this showcase as impressive and futuristic as possible, from the microchip-embedded tickets to the funnel-shaped, glass-and-steel “sun valleys” along the main Expo thoroughfare that glow a magnificent neon blue at night.
But one feature seems startlingly out of place: the screenings of filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s new documentary, I Wish I Knew. The movie is about Shanghai’s past – a past some residents would rather soon forget.
That Jia has been included in the programme of events is more than a little surprising – he used to be banned from making films in China. The director spent several years in official purgatory after his first film, Xiao Wu, about a thief in a run-down interior Chinese city, ran afoul of the authorities, but he continued making movies on the sly anyway.
Then, in 2004, he decided to come in from the cold, submitting his feature The World for official release in China. Jia has since established himself as one of the leaders of the “Sixth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers, known for his realistic and gritty portrayals of life on the margins of society in hyper-modernising China. He’s also become a rising star abroad, winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2006 for Still Life, a moody drama about peasants displaced by the Three Gorges Dam project.
Jia’s movies may have the tacit approval of the Chinese authorities but they haven’t always been warmly received at home. Now, however, the government is giving Jia a big stage, allowing him to screen I Wish I Knew at the Expo for 100 days. It’s an unusual move considering the film, in which people describe their memories of Shanghai over the past 70 years, touches on delicate subjects such as the Cultural Revolution and the mass exodus of residents to Hong Kong and Taiwan during the 1949 Communist takeover.
“I was really surprised to get the nod from the government,” Jia said recently in Shanghai. “In the past, people were not allowed to talk about the Cultural Revolution – that was taboo. But the Cultural Revolution was an important part of China’s history.”
Through interviews with 18 subjects ranging from Du Mei-Ru, daughter of an infamous Shanghai gangster, to the provocative blogger Han Han, Jia’s goal was to document the complex history of a city before it’s buried forever by the bulldozer. But whether the film will resonate with Shanghainese who are fixated on the future remains to be seen.
“The focus on the past and the leisurely way it unfolds are the two things about the film that make it seem a curious fit with Expo,” says Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian and author of the book China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. “I like it, but I don’t see it being a runaway popular success.”